In recent years, you’ve probably come across news articles about PFAS, sometimes called forever chemicals. These chemicals can be found in many different things that we use on a daily basis, including nonstick cookware.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, pronounced PEE-fass) have been linked to higher risk for various health problems. As a result, a number of states, including California and Minnesota, have recently passed legislation that either requires manufacturers to disclose the use of these chemicals in their products or has banned certain products with PFAS entirely. Other states are considering similar bills.
How bad are these chemicals for you? Do you need to stop using nonstick cookware? We spoke with representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Michigan State University’s Center for PFAS Research to learn more.
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What Are PFAS (Forever Chemicals)?
PFAS are actually a large family of synthetic chemicals. There are many different PFAS, each with different effects, but all of them are characterized by a strong carbon-fluorine bond.
PFAS are commonly used in many household goods, including clothing, carpets, food packaging, and nonstick cookware.
PFAS make these products slippery (nonstick) and/or resistant to water, oil, stains, or even fire. Because of that strong chemical carbon-fluorine bond, PFAS don’t degrade easily in the environment, hence the common name “forever chemicals.”
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How Bad Are PFAS for Your Health?
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains, “Because of their widespread use and their persistence in the environment, PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and in the environment.”
Not only are PFAS in pretty much every human and animal in the world, but they build up in our bodies over time. Studies have indicated that the higher your exposure to PFAS, the greater your risk for various issues, including some cancers, infertility, immune system dysfunction, and liver disease.
As Dan Jones, associate director at the MSU Center for PFAS Research, told us, different PFAS chemicals may have different levels of toxicity too. The problem is, we don’t know as much as we’d like to about all the different chemicals. The two best-studied PFAS, PFOA and PFOS, have been phased out of use, at least in the United States, but many others exist and remain in use, and their health effects are less well known.
How Worried Should I Be About PFAS in Nonstick Cookware?
PFAS are famously the chemicals that make nonstick cookware, well, nonstick. Conventional nonstick cookware is made with a PFAS called PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), also known as Teflon.
In the past, PTFE was produced with the help of another PFAS called PFOA. But studies clearly linked PFOA to health risks, so this specific chemical was phased out in 2014. Now, PTFE is produced without PFOA in the United States.
But nonstick cookware still contains other PFAS. So is using nonstick cookware harmful?
Not necessarily, say our sources. As Enrico Dinges, press officer at the FDA, told us, “At this time, the FDA is not aware of any research demonstrating that the use of authorized PFAS substances in cookware presents a safety concern for consumers.”
Jones agreed: “There have been no findings that using nonstick cookware is associated with any significant exposure in humans.”
It’s not clear that the PFAS in your nonstick cookware actually migrate into your food (and thus into your body) when you cook. Dinges explained, “PFAS molecules are polymerized (i.e., joined together to form large molecules) and then applied to the surface of the cookware at very high temperatures, which tightly binds the polymer coating to the cookware.
This process vaporizes off virtually all the smaller (i.e., migratable) PFAS molecules.” In fact, as Jones told us, you may even get rid of some of the remaining PFAS when you wash your nonstick cookware with detergent.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be concerned about PFAS in general. Rather, as Jones explained, it’s that we are exposed to many more significant and well-documented sources of PFAS, including those in some foods, food packaging, and even drinking water.
“In everything we do, there is no such thing as zero risk. Everything we do exposes us to chemicals that may be harmful.” The important thing, Jones said, is to be aware of the risks and your exposure.
Should I Keep My Nonstick Skillets?
Yes, if you want to.
That said, there are a few things you can and should do to use your nonstick cookware safely, minimizing the risk that the PFAS in their coatings will affect you.
- Don’t Use Metal Utensils on Them: Metal spatulas or spoons can scratch the nonstick coating, potentially making it easier for PFAS to migrate out.
- Don’t Broil or Use Nonstick Skillets at Temperatures Above 500℉: Studies have shown that these high temperatures can cause nonstick coatings to degrade and emit toxic fumes.
- Don’t Heat an Empty Skillet: An empty skillet gets a lot hotter than one with food in it, increasing your risk of toxic fumes. As a result, we always recommend heating any nonstick skillet with oil or butter in it, as these fats smoke at lower temperatures (usually around 350 or 400 degrees, depending on the type of fat), and provide a visual cue that the pan is getting dangerously hot.
What About Nonstick Alternatives?
If you want to eliminate nonstick cookware from your kitchen, we have some great options.
- Ceramic Skillets: Touted as the “green” alternative to nonstick, ceramic skillets are made without PFAS. The best can be great—our favorite, by GreenPan, nearly rivals our favorite nonstick. But in general, ceramic skillets are less nonstick and less durable over time than traditional nonstick, so you may need to clean them a little more carefully and replace them more frequently. Ceramic skillets perform slightly differently too, heating up faster and staying hot longer than traditional nonstick. You may need to lower the heat under the pan or take it off the heat sooner than called for in a recipe as a result.
- Carbon-Steel Skillets: Traditionally used in many professional kitchens, carbon-steel skillets can be just as nonstick as nonstick and without the questionable chemicals. Better still, they’re a bit more durable than either nonstick or ceramic models. The caveats? They are often a tad heavier than nonstick or ceramic skillets of the same size. And most models require you to season them before use, which can take some time; you’ll need to clean and maintain them carefully to keep them slippery and nonstick over time.
- Cast-Iron Skillets: Properly seasoned, cast-iron skillets can also be quite nonstick. They lack chemical additives and are the most durable option on the market, resisting warping or other damage. The downsides: They can be quite heavy, and like carbon-steel models, they require careful cleaning and maintenance to keep that seasoning intact.
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What’s the Future of Nonstick Cookware?
As the public becomes more aware of the risks associated with PFAS, and as states begin to regulate products with PFAS more strictly, we expect to see more companies developing alternatives to traditional nonstick cookware and bakeware. Already, we’ve heard that OXO, manufacturer of our favorite nonstick skillet, is in the process of phasing out its nonstick skillets in favor of ceramic. Williams-Sonoma, manufacturer of many of our favorite bakeware products, is also exploring new coatings that are PTFE-free. We will be updating our reviews (and this guide) to reflect any changes in products and in safety recommendations as they develop.